Happy Ides of March! Yesterday, Brad A. Latilla-Campbell ’16 notified me of yet another G&S reference he’d found in The West Wing. Clearly, Aaron Sorkin is a fellow Savoyard. Coincidentally, our blog post this week also features a Gilbert & Sullivan cultural reference, albeit of a … vastly different medium.


Written by Ned Sanger

1868-skirt-lengths-girl-ages-harpers-bazar
Harper’s Bazaar c. 1900

Gilbert and Sullivan show their plump faces in all sorts of places. I recently discovered one of the most absurd: a sordid passage in Chapter 5 of Ulysses. It begins when Mr. Leopold Bloom, the hero of the book and a cuckold, catches sight of a lady across the street. She is about to step into a cab, and he knows that as she does she’ll have to lift her dress slightly, which will briefly expose her silk stockings, as well as a slice of upper calf, or so he hopes. So he sidles into a better vantage point and focuses his attention—“Silk flash rich stockings white. Watch!”—but it turns out to be for nothing: at the very moment of the grand reveal, a tramcar rounds the corner, obstructs his view, obscures her calf, and deprives him of his peeping pleasures. “Paradise and the peri,” Bloom bewails, before he slogs the rest of the dreary way to church: “Always happens like that.”

The important bit is “Paradise and the peri.” A few bookworms argue that this phrase refers to the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe; or, the Peer and the Peri. The theory is that Bloom feels so guilty about trying to “peer” at some calves that his subconscious blocks the very word from his mind and makes him bungle the title—therefore “paradise” instead. As for why a failed attempt to glimpse some silk stockings would cause a person to think about Gilbert and Sullivan—well, they don’t explain, but they don’t need to. Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan know from experience that those snickering Victorian jokesters tend, at unexpected moments, to leap out of irrelevancy and prance about in front of the mind’s eye while singing into the mind’s ear. It’s extremely likely that in Bloom’s reveries they wear lady’s silk stockings while they do it.

The Sorcerer opens on March 24th, however, so soon all of us will get to enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan in less embarrassing ways than Bloom. It’s going to be a great production, full of old charms and new twists, so find your opera glasses, opera clothes, and a few opera flasks, and make plans to come to the Agassiz—we’re nearly ready for you.

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